Lies, Damned Lies and Poverty Statistics

Statistics can be useful for measuring progress or identifying areas of improvement, but real poverty reduction efforts will continue to rely on community-wide investments and action.

By Tom Cooper
Published December 20, 2007

Benjamin Disraeli, a British Prime Minister of the 19th century, once mused: "There are three kinds of lies: Lies, damned lies, and statistics". Later Mark Twain popularized the quote to denote the persuasive power of numbers and how even accurate statistics can sometimes be misinterpreted.

Earlier this month, Statistics Canada released the most recent Census data on population growth. With a population of almost 505,000, Hamilton has officially joined the ranks of cities with populations of more than half a million people. The City has also been bumped up into a new category for calculating the low income cut off (LICO).

LICO is often, if inaccurately, interposed with the 'poverty line'. Statistics Canada uses a complex formula that calculates the point at which families are expected to spend 20 percentage points more than the average family on food, clothing and housing costs in communities of various sizes in setting the LICO.

The categories for various 'city sizes' are supposed to capture differences in costs of living between larger cities versus small ones. Hamilton's new designation put us into a category with other cities such as Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal.

As such, because goods, rents, food, tend to cost more in bigger cities, the low income cut-off for our City rose $7000 overnight, which means several thousand families - who previously were just above the low income cut off - may have dropped officially below the LICO.

On paper, it looks as though Hamilton's poverty rate has jumped significantly. It hasn't really. Grocery stores didn't suddenly jack up food prices, nor did landlords hike rents more than the usual.

Last month 15,000 people visited food banks in Hamilton. The new numbers likely don't mean that 20,000 people will line up for food next month. It may mean that poverty was underestimated in official statistics last month. Conversely, it may be somewhat overestimated this month.

Assessing Poverty

Income statistics are an important indicator for tracking trends and measuring success in poverty reduction. At the same time, it's important to remember that they are only a snapshot of a given situation.

The only comprehensive income statistics we currently have come from the 2001 census. The most recent census data, from 2006, won't be released until the spring of 2008. In effect, we're comparing the incomes people made in 2001 to the cost of living in 2008: not an accurate reflection. We'll need to wait to see the new Census income statistics next year to provide a more comprehensive outline of the depth of poverty in Hamilton.

Still, the numbers do provide a peek at what we might see. There's been some concern around the LICO thresholds that try to categorize what it means to live in poverty: an individual now falls below the cutoff if they make less than $21,200 before tax. That is bound to capture an awful lot of people who work (that's basically somebody working full time making $10/hr). A family of four's income would fall below the LICO if they made less than $39,000.

Families on social assistance (both Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Program) already fell thousands of dollars below the LICO. Those numbers will likely not be impacted by the new classification.

A more precise picture of poverty in Hamilton comes from numbers that we know. The Social Planning and Research Council in partnership with the City of Hamilton recently released a report on Homelessness in Hamilton [PDF]. It revealed that 3,950 individual people - almost one percent of the population of Hamilton - stayed at a homeless shelter last year. That's astounding and profoundly disturbing.

We know that thousands of families are spending more than 50 percent of their monthly incomes on rent and housing costs, putting them at extreme risk of homelessness should they fall into an emergency situation.

Toward a Poverty Strategy

Hamilton's new LICO category may provide some concrete benefits in the fight to reduce and eliminate poverty in the city. As a result of the new classification, government programs that may assist people to break the cycle of poverty may become more accessible.

For example, a person who was previously just a percentage point above the LICO threshold and not eligible for a special program could become eligible at the new level - despite their income remaining the same.

Hamilton may also become eligible for a wider range of funding options from senior levels of government.

In Hamilton, the Roundtable for Poverty Reduction has chosen to focus on the journey out of poverty. As such, we've identified the aspiration of making Hamilton the Best Place to Raise a Child. It is an inclusive aspiration, not an exclusive one.

Successful poverty initiatives have demonstrated that key investments at strategic points in the lives of children, youth and their parents can make a big difference in breaking chronic and multi-generational poverty. That means investments in the early years, in education, in skills training, in job creation and in asset building can result in lower incidences of poverty.

It doesn't mean that interventions can not be made to address structural poverty as well. The Roundtable has been pushing conversations forward on the need for a living wage and adequate levels of social assistance. The Roundtable advocated the return on the National Child Benefit Supplement to families in receipt of social assistance and pushed strongly for the creation of the Ontario wide poverty strategy, which is now starting to take shape.

Statistics can be an extremely useful tool for measuring progress or identifying needed areas of improvement, but real poverty reduction efforts will continue to rely on community-wide investments and action.

Tom Cooper is the Director of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction.


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By Dean (anonymous) | Posted December 22, 2007 at 00:56:20

Regardless of any stats, LICO, etc. Hamilton has become a very depressing place. Poverty is virtually everywhere in the lower city and seems to be creeping outward. We have simply become a magnet for all of the GTA poor with cheap abundant housing, generous municipal social programs,etc. I think the povery situation is going to get much worse in the next few years if we have a slowdown in the economy.

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By Matt (anonymous) | Posted January 03, 2008 at 21:53:06

Although I agree that if the economy continues to slow down "the situation" will get a lot worse. Meaning, more people here (and many places) will be poorer than they are now. As trends go, with the rich getting richer (and faster) and the rest of us falling behind, this means that the poor and the middle class folks will get poorer.

What I don't agree with is the claim that Hamilton is a "magnet" for the poor. Increases to Hamilton seem to come from immigration and students (myself included). I'm resigned to living with less (than my parents at least) and aiming for some idea of simplicity in my life - both by choice and because it seems like they'll be less to go around (I'm not rich and don't really expect to be anytime soon..).

Hamilton as a city isn't doing much to keep me here. I rely on buses, which aren't getting any better (but are costing more and more). There just doesn't seem to be decent jobs for anyone here - let alone young, university grads who are still naive and idealistic enough want to do something they believe in as a vocation. Poor people, or people without at least decent jobs, don't fly all that much, so I agree with Don's criticism of the Airport Express. (Not to mention the annoyance of taking luggage on a bus...if you're dropping a grand for a flight and hotel, plus spending money, what's $20 for a cab to get to the airport?! Although I hope they do run a bus to that area for the folks that work there and could/would use it; maybe they should see how much use a smaller run generates...)

I'm planning on leaving in the fall. The city isn't doing much to keep me here, so I'm going to put my time and energy into some other place and hope it's more appreciated there. To those of you with deeper roots here, I wish you the best. Maybe I'll be back someday; if it ever starts to feel like the city isn't fighting against functional public transit, a livable and revitalized downtown, and some semblance of democracy politically that is. For now, though, you should know something. Poor people don't flock to Hamilton (if they could travel easily they'd go somewhere with jobs, or a warm beach at least). Hamilton makes people poor.

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